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SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  299 Minutes (series), 169 Minutes (film)
Release Date:  March 9, 2004

“Could there be anything more terrifying than a husband and wife who hate each other?"

Film ****

Scenes From a Marriage was another in a string of landmark projects in Ingmar Bergman’s career, each signifying a kind of reinvention of himself as an artist at points when he was either beginning to lose his mass audience or being criticized for repeating himself.  Films like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and Persona were such turning points, but Scenes From a Marriage turned the Swedish director’s attention to an altogether different medium:  television.

Conceived and presented in Scandinavia as a 6 part TV miniseries, Scenes was instantly acclaimed by critics and beloved by fans…film historian Peter Cowie even noted that when one of the episodes was airing, the streets were practically deserted…everyone was eagerly awaiting the next chapter.

But Bergman’s original vision didn’t get much beyond the boundaries of his native Europe.  In the west, where his films were generally much better received than in his homeland, distributors had heard of the success of Scenes, and knowing that a subtitled miniseries would probably never play on this side of the Atlantic, clamored for a version they could show on the screen.  Bergman complied, and trimmed his 299 minute teleplay into a 169 minute film with surprising efficiency, leading to a movie that was just as acclaimed over here as the miniseries was over there.

The picture also became an inspiration to filmmakers on both continents.  Woody Allen has especially praised the movie, and you can see ideas from it in most of the films he’s made since 1974, from the chamber play stylings of September to the self exploration of Another Woman, to even examining the anatomy of an ending relationship in Annie Hall, though the Woodman opted for a comical approach there.

Bergman’s picture is beautifully written and acted, offering a story that’s heavy on substance and somewhat lighter on style compared to some of his earlier masterworks.  There are a few fleeting supporting players here and there, but the bulk of the material is wrapped up in Marianne (Ullmann) and Johan (Josephson), and the study of their relationship and faltering marriage over a period of ten years.

They seem like the happy, perfect couple, but from the beginning, something seems a little wrong.  A magazine is doing a story on them.  They are posed for pictures, and good naturedly grope for the kinds of answers they think are required, but something feels a little uneasy and artificial about it all.  A later dinner with another married couple seems to stoke the fire as their smiling barbs turn to an all out implosion right before the bewildered protagonists.

I won’t go into to many details, but the crux of the tale is when Johan honestly but tactlessly admits he’s fallen for a younger woman.  What follows is no Hollywood version of a break up where the profanity spews and the pots and pans fly, but rather a heartbreaking look a bewildered woman trying to cope as her world is coming down around her. 

Both end up eventually married to others, and both characters show the effects of ten years of emotional growth before our eyes.  The once self-assured Johan becomes insecure and somewhat self-loathing, while Marianne blossoms into an independent spirit.  We spend time with them when they come together over the years and marvel at the changes as they age (not so much physical as personality-wise).

This is an intimate, honest look at the way relationships sometimes crumble away.  The timeline gives Bergman a full scope of opportunity for exploration, while the sensational performances by the two stars earn our emotional investment for the duration.  Much of the drama takes place in the house or in other simple rooms, so it almost works as a play, but the use of tight close-ups by cinematographer Sven Nykvist give us a human canvas to contemplate:  we’re not just seeing words going from page to screen, but considering the volumes of unspoken dialogue that seem to play behind the characters’ eyes.

With Marianne and Johan, Bergman created a pair of rich, developed and emotionally malleable people that simultaneously seem to reflect the self impressions of many of his audience members.  I called the picture an honest depiction of the turmoil of a relationship; I’ve read another critical analysis that says the film is far from truthful and is actually a male fantasy version of divorce, where the husband can score a younger girl and still get to fool around with his wife on the side.  Maybe that assessment reflected the personal situation of its author; for me, I found nothing comforting in the fact that Johan gave up his wife and children and a possible beautiful life together for the sake of a fluttering moment of satisfaction.

Scenes From a Marriage, therefore, like all of the best works of Bergman, invites a certain amount of personal involvement on the part of the viewers.  It’s almost as if he lets us in on a small part of the creative process, giving us the materials we need to shape our own vision.  Not many directors can do that, but it’s an effect Bergman has achieved time and time again.

It’s hard to say for sure where to start, but I think I’d recommend that if you’ve never seen any of it before to start with the film version and then go back and experience the miniseries, stretching it out over several nights if you wish.  That way, you can enjoy the more concise version and go back and experience the more fleshed out one, rather than watching the movie second and constantly thinking about what got cut here and there.

Either way, you’re in for a unique and unforgettable experience.  Scenes From a Marriage might be part film, part TV series, but any way you look at it, it’s a major achievement and another career milestone for Ingmar Bergman.

Video **1/2

The film was originally shot on 16 mm for television, so the visual look is not as refined as some Bergman offerings.  There is a natural bit of grain inherent in the film stock and visible from time to time, especially against flat colored backgrounds.  It’s not distracting, merely noticeable.  Images range from fairly sharp to somewhat soft, again probably owing to the source material.  Colors generally look quite good throughout.

Audio **

As with most mono offerings, this is a serviceable but unremarkable offering.  Dialogue, though Swedish, seems clear enough throughout, and a few intense exchanges lend a little bit of dynamic range to the presentation.

Features ***

Three disc, three bonuses.  Disc one features a 1986 interview with Ingmar Bergman discussing the film.  Disc two has a brand new interview with both Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson that’s enjoyable and enlightening (the two have remained best friends over the years and have worked frequently together).  Disc three features historian Peter Cowie analyzing the specific differences between the film and the television versions of the story.  All in all, an entertaining and certainly informative smattering of extras.

Summary:

By bringing both the film and full television versions of Scenes From a Marriage together in one attractive package, Criterion has once again proven themselves to be the cinema lover’s truest friend.  Wholeheartedly recommended.